Character Strategies (Part Four)- ‘Burdened Enduring’ And ‘Charming Manipulative’ – Dr Janina Fisher’s Insights

by Penny Boreham, Intake Manager

Character Strategies – Part Four

Dr Janina Fisher presenting her ideas

This is the fourth of our series of blogs on ‘Character Strategies,’ a concept developed by Ron Kurtz and elaborated by Dr Pat Ogden.

I am very grateful to Dr Janina Fisher, world expert on the treatment of trauma and a Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute faculty member, who is joining me to reflect on how these strategies can assist therapists to find appropriate therapeutic interventions for their clients.

The term ‘Character Strategy’ emerged in the 1970s as a way to describe habits of perception, belief, and relating to others which had historically been described, in pathological terms, as ‘characterological’ patterns, suggesting that they were fixed, maladaptive, and secondary gain-oriented. In the neurobiologically-informed psychotherapies that have gained prominence in the past 10 years, such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, there is a different assumption.

The assumption is that these patterns represent ‘survival strategies’ that are not so much defensive in nature, as Freud suggested, but represent ‘best possible’ adaptations to particular family environments at a time when our physical and emotional survival is dependent upon our caretakers. When parental ability to provide optimal attachment is compromised, infants and young children have only their own bodies to rely upon. They must maintain some degree of connection to caregivers, while also finding ways to protect themselves from danger, hurt, disappointment, or rejection. Individuals’ habits of emotional expression, relational style, posture and structure can often tell us more about an individual’s story than the events remembered, allowing a better understanding of the core beliefs stemming from our earliest needs and fears.

An experienced therapist can help her/his client to acknowledge the presence of a dominant strategy, a secondary strategy or one that emerges when the client is under more stress, and often another that is there but has never been acknowledged.

Last time we looked at two of the ‘Character Strategies’ – ‘Dependent-Endearing’ and ‘Self Reliant’ – you can read about them in the blog, and today we are giving a little more focus to another two of the nine strategies :-

Burdened-Enduring and Charming Manipulative strategies reflect the developmental challenges faced by 3-5 year old children that Erik Erikson described as ‘initiative versus guilt.’ We know from the developmental psychology literature that the expression of will first emerges in two-year-olds, making famous the expression, ‘the terrible two’s.’ But little is written in the popular media about how children continue to negotiate their drive to assert will and mastery in the context of their dependence on adults. In families in which children are not allowed to express will directly, nor encouraged to learn how to negotiate with adults, children must find alternate ways of developing a sense of mastery.

Burdened-Enduring strategy directly reflects coercively controlling environments in which it is ‘my way or the highway.’ The parents’ word is law, and the child must obey. Any attempts at resistance are thwarted and/or punished, forcing the child to become covert in the expression of will or what is negatively labelled as ‘passive-aggressive.’ By shutting down, obeying mechanically, and avoiding conflict, the child can create short-term safety— at the cost of becoming stuck in inaction or resistance to action. The ‘Burdened-Enduring’ adult is often very responsible, hard-working, and reliable but at the cost of feeling resentful, controlled, and unable to change.

Charming Manipulative strategy represents a solution to environments in which a child’s desires are not recognized, understood or satisfied — or are unsafe if revealed (i.e., expression of desire or will is used against the child).

Unlike the coercive environment of the Burdened-Enduring child, the Charming Manipulative individual has the option to create safety by avoiding direct expression of will, or need, and instead communicating his or her wants indirectly through innuendo, charm, deception, indirection, or manipulation.

The Charming Manipulative individual is often charismatic, entertaining, and appears genuinely caring, yet those qualities can be deceptive when he or she has a hidden agenda.

The Impact on Relationships

A deep understanding of these strategies can help us better understand our clients’ relationships to others, and can also of course reveal much about the therapeutic relationship.

For example, those with ‘Burdened-Enduring’ Character Strategy often convey an attitude that life is disappointing and burdensome and that they can only be close to, or accepted by, others if they serve their needs.

Though outwardly compliant, the suppressed irritability and resentment often erodes relationships, including the therapeutic one. Having learned to silently, and indirectly resist the will of others as children, they are apt to resist their own will as adults: “I want to stand up for myself,” “I want to go to the gym,” “I need to be more positive,” is what they say but then they experience their own resistance.

Those with ‘Charming Manipulative’ character strategy might appear to be consummate con-artists, using charm and manipulation to get what they want, they might be the ‘life of the party’ but somewhat superficial in relationships with a lack of genuine commitment. Even though they may be fundamentally longing for intimacy, the vulnerability hidden under the charm is often difficult to see. They often appear to be relationally cooperative but are, in essence, doing what they want indirectly. In close relationships, they are at risk of being seen as ‘betraying’ or ‘manipulating’ when their lack of genuine mutuality and reciprocity becomes apparent to their significant others.

Case Studies 

Carl’s earliest memory as a little boy aged 2: he is playing with his toys in a big room when his mother enters and puts down at his side a kitchen timer and a paddle. She says, “I’ve set the timer to 2 minutes. When it rings, all your toys should be picked up or you’ll get the paddle”—then she leaves. He recalls to this day how, left alone, he watched the timer tick, carefully waiting until the last possible moment, and then racing to get all the toys in their places just in time. He always complied in the end— there was no other option—but also found ways to resist, dig in his heels, and exert his will indirectly. As an adult, about to turn 50, he is now a lonely man, stuck in the first job he found after university, who has come to therapy because his OCD symptoms have become worse as has his hoarding behavior. In his flat, there are now only narrow paths between carefully stacked piles of books and boxes, and he is isolated because he can no longer have people to his home. He has one close friendship, with a female colleague, but, not seeing what she has to put up with him, he only bitterly resents that he has ‘to take care of her.’ In therapy, he expresses a wish to change — to overcome his OCD and hoarding — but resists even his own efforts, a clear description of ‘Burdened-Enduring’ strategy. His last therapist became irritated with him after numerous attempts at change and ended up with no gain, and he remains deeply hurt that he trusted her only to be ‘chastised and sent packing.’ Once his character strategy could be understood, by his current therapist, as automatic rather than intentional, she could have realistic expectations for the therapy, avoid putting pressure on Karl, and help him accept his symptoms rather than judge himself.

Kurt was a middle child in a family with harried, overwhelmed parents preoccupied with the care of his younger sister born with severe developmental delays. His older sister, burdened by her role as caretaker for her younger brother, took advantage of every opportunity to take out her hurt and rage on Kurt and to undermine his relationship with their parents. Direct attempts to engage his parents failed because of their exhaustion and focus on his sister, while being open and vulnerable with his sister invariably backfired when she humiliated him, told tales on him, or destroyed the toys most precious to him.

A very handsome, intelligent child with an engaging smile, Kurt soon found another way: charming his teachers, his friends’ parents, neighbours and extended family. Ignored by his parents and tortured by his sister, he was the centre of attention elsewhere, and he carried this Charming Manipulative pattern into his relationship with a ‘Burdened-Enduring’ wife. Although her steady, loyal, reliable presence created safety for him, he had difficulty appreciating her or attuning to her needs. To avoid conflict, he would promise her to be home on time, to call if he was away, to spend time with her and their children—and then ‘something would come up’ that allowed him to bask in being the centre of attention socially or at work. As much as Kurt wanted his family to be happy with him, his need to charm his way into the emotional spotlight everywhere he went interfered with his being genuinely present. In couples therapy, understanding the ways that their strategies exacerbated each other was a first step in each being more genuinely connected to themselves and eventually to each other.

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